Panelists discussed journalist Austin Tice’s (SFS ’02) 2012 kidnapping in Syria, the challenges of reporting in combat zones and the need for swift advocacy on Austin’s behalf as part of the Salim El-Lozi Lecture series in the Intercultural Center on Wednesday.
The panelists included Austin Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra Tice, former Middle East Bureau Chief for McClatchy Newspapers Nancy Youssef and the U.S. Director of Reporters Without Borders Delphine Halgand. Veteran journalist, free speech expert and Georgetown University Distinguished Scholar in Residence Sanford Ungar moderated the event.Austin Tice, a freelance journalist published by McClatchy Newspapers, The Washington Post and CBS, among other media, travelled to Syria to report on the region’s conflict in May 2012 and disappeared Aug. 12, 2012 as he prepared to travel from Daraya, Syria, to Beirut, Lebanon. Tice is suspected to have been kidnapped by Syrian government forces.
Austin graduated from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in 2002 and later attended the Georgetown University Law Center. He traveled to Syria to pursue freelance journalism in 2009 the summer between his second and third years of law school.
According to a 2016 annual assessment by Reporters Without Borders, at least 54 journalists are currently missing and 150 are detained, mostly having been taken from Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya.
In the last 10 years, almost 800 journalists have been killed while reporting. Ninety percent of these journalists are local journalists. All of the journalists were taken captive while reporting, and were targeted specifically because of their reporting.
Debra Tice said Austin wanted to go to Syria to capture the human effects of the war.
“The compelling thing for him, having been really on the ground in a war zone, was he wanted people to feel what it was like to be a child living in a war zone that’s undefined, no front line,” Debra Tice said. “Your mom may not come home from the grocery store, your baby brother might have a bomb dropped through the ceiling on his crib. Austin wanted people to have a feeling of what this new urban warfare, what it lives like, day in and day out.”
Austin served as a marine infantry officer after graduation from the SFS, and due to his background in the military and his confident, self-assured personality, Debra said she and her husband did not worry extensively when he initially told them of his plans to go to Syria. “He doesn’t give you the kind of feeling that you need to worry about him. When he was applying to Georgetown, he started his application essay with ‘I believe I am caller number 7.’ Because if he tried, he won,” Debra Tice said. “It was very catching. It was just like, ‘Well if he’s going to do it, it’s going to work out.’”
Youssef, who served as Austin’s direct supervisor in Cairo at the time, said she started feeling like something was wrong after four days without contact from Austin, who had previously been in daily contact. Youssef contacted Austin’s editor at McClatchy, who was on vacation at the time, and they began making inquiries into Austin’s whereabouts.
Youssef said at the time she could not imagine that Austin had disappeared. “Even then, I didn’t have the imagination that it would become this. We were just so naive,” Yousef said. “I honestly thought I was being a little paranoid myself, because I just didn’t have the imagination to think it would become what it became.”
Marc Tice officially heard about the situation from a call from the State Department that began, “Mr. Tice, this is the State Department, are you sitting down?”
The Tices received two indications of what happened to their son. First, the Czech ambassador to Syria went on a Czech news broadcast in which, when asked about Austin Tice, responded that they understood that he had been arrested.
Marc said at that point, the decision concerning being public about Austin’s situation was taken out of the family’s hands.
The second indication was a YouTube video titled “Austin Tice is still alive,” which showed Austin being taken up a hill by a group of armed men.
Over the three years of Austin’s captivity, the Tices’ strategy has changed from a global to a more personal effort, as they garnered more contacts and connections in Syria.
Throughout the search, the Tices and their colleagues have looked for any possible pieces of information. Youseff even checked Words with Friends, a popular mobile game, to see if Austin had been on his phone.
Youseff said Austin’s parents have played a fundamental role in guiding the investigation.
“They were supporting us and they really guided us in terms of tone, tenor, strength,” Youseff said. “You never felt like you could indulge in your own frustration, when you’re watching the strength that you see here before you.”
Halgand said Reporters Without Borders’ #FreeAustinTice campaign, which uses black blindfolds with “Free Austin Tice” written on them in white letters, is intended to ensure the public realizes the impact of reporters being kidnapped.
“The idea of the campaign is that when a journalist is kidnapped, often he is blindfolded, but when a journalist is kidnapped, we are all blindfolded, because we are all deprived of information. That is a very strong image and powerful message,” Halgand said.
The Tices said raising awareness through social media posts, letters to Congress and physical demonstrations are important in getting Austin Tice home.
“We need to get Austin home before this election ramps up any more. It is our government that needs to have the will to get him home,” Debra said. “Whatever influence you have, however many friends you can get, if you want to go stand outside the White House with posters. … The pressure right now needs to be on the White house that we want this done, and it needs to be done sooner rather than later.”
Halgand said journalists face danger because of the nature of their job.
“Freedom of information, freedom of the press, is the freedom that allows all of us to verify the existence of other freedoms.” Halgand said. “And that’s why they are targeted. And that’s why they deserve specific safety principles.”
Youseff said journalists are important in order to better understand war.
“If we’re going to deploy other people’s children in my name, the least I could do was to try and find out why, and whether it was worth it, and whether we were doing it responsibly,” Youseff said. “There is no other way to truly understand it, other than to be in that Humvee with them.”
Delegate of the Student Bar Association of Georgetown University Law Center Ata Akiner, who proposed a unanimously passed resolution in support of Austin Tice, said it is important the university works to support Austin Tice.
“Both the main campus and the law school have a lot of influential people who teach there … if we can spread the word, I think that’s probably the most we can do at this point but hopefully that will have a further domino effect,” Akiner said.
Teresa Eder (GRD ’17), who attended the event, said the media industry may be less willing to take risks.
“People going into war zones as freelancers, they themselves take a huge risk and I think less and less the media industry is willing to take accountability for people,” Eder said.
Bridget Mcelroy (COL ’18) said the event made her want to help more.
“I didn’t expect to react as strongly as I did. I think having the Tices here added a very personal aspect to it, and humanized it. It made me want to get involved more,” Mcelroy said.
Correction: This article previously incorrectly stated that Tice had dropped out of law school to pursue journalism. He left for Syria during the summer and was registered for his final year when he departed.